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William Milburn was born at Ashington in 1826 and by 1849, at the age of only 23, was part owner of the schooner John Twizel. Three years later he was operating the barques Halicore, Pero and Walton in coal trade out of Newbiggin and Blyth in the North East of England. His activities were mainly coastal to other British ports and one of his customers was the Gas, Light & Coke Company which had been founded in 1812 by Royal Charter and based in London. As a point of interest, at that time a gas burner consuming five cubic ft/0.14 cubic metres per hour had to produce a light equal to 12 candles - hence the term candle power.
In 1856 he extended his operations to deep sea voyages out of the North East of England gradually introducing the larger sailing ships Eastern Queen and Equinox on a service to the West Indies and the Hindoostan to India and China where she loaded her inbound tea cargoes. He met up Edmund H. Watts in 1857 and founded the firm of Watts, Milburn & Co. of Newcastle with Watts as the senior partner. The new company expanded its operations to include voyages to the Black Sea calling at ports such as Odessa in the Ukraine and Trabzon in Turkey and topping up at Constantinople (Istanbul) for the homeward voyage. Being under sail only the ships had to be towed by a steam tug through the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.

In 1867 Watts, Milburn & Co. ordered four clipper-stemmed, barque rigged steamships for deployment on the China tea run. Being faster than sail steamships were able to bring home the first crops and attract prime market prices and this together with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 when the Suez Canal brought about the final demise of the tea clipper. The ships, delivered on a semi-annual basis, were the Canton, the Hong Kong, the Nankin and the Singapore and with their arrival London gradually became the main port with cargoes being handled by loading agents but supervised by one of the partners right up to the point of sailing. As the tea trade was seasonal the need for out of season cargoes saw the ships extending their operations as far as Australia and New Zealand.


The composite tea clipper Taunton was delivered in 1868 and when the Suez Canal opened in November 1869 the Watts, Milburn steamship Otterburn was one of the first ships to complete the southbound transit during a voyage from the UK to Calcutta. In the same year William Milburn formed the Hamburg-Brasilianische D.G in partnership with August Bolten of Hamburg. Destined to become one of the world's foremost shipping ogranisations the first three steamships were supplied by Milburn with the Criterion making the company's first sailing on 15th June 1869.
During the following year the 'lovely Lutterworth', William Milburn's last sailing ship, joined the fleet. In 1871 the Hamburg venture formed the Hamburg-Sud Amerikanischen Dampschiffarts Gesellschaft - the Hamburg-South America Line- in which Milburn had 225 shares. By 1914 the Hamburg-South America Line was the largest operator in the south Atlantic.

In 1872 Edmund Watts formed a new concern, Watts, Ward & Co. for the purpose of becoming colliery owners and eventually built up an independent fleet of 22 steamships.

Three large steamships were built in 1874 which despite there names, Whampoa, St Osyth and Hankow, signified a determined entry into the Australian market with regular sailings from London to Australia via Cape Town which were completed in 42 days. The first sailing by the St. Osyth on the 31st October to Melbourne was on charter to Anderson, Anderson & Co. with a cargo for the Orient Line of Packets. After that the three ships were chartered to John Flint's Colonial Line for triangular voyages, the first sailing being made by the Whampoa on 24th December 1874. The ships would carry a general cargo on the outward leg to Australia then proceed to China in ballast where they would load tea for the homeward run. This arrangement lasted for almost six years and, in effect, the Watts, Milburn vessels were established on the Australian run some years before Milburn introduced vessels in his own right.


In 1877 Watts, Milburn began to sell off their ships and in 1879 the partnership split into two. William Milburn opened his own registered office in London placing his two sons, William Milburn junior and Charles in charge and a further son John, later to become Sir John, was given the task of running the Newcastle office. With the proceeds of ship sails both William Milburn and Edmund Watts started new careers; Milburn forming a new company Wm. Milburn & Co.
The first ship to be built for the new company was the Conniston in 1880 followed by the Ascalon in 1882 which was the first of a class of ten vessels similar in size and appearance.

In 1883 William Milburn formed the Anglo-Australasian Steam Navigation Company with the intention of operating direct services to Australia from London via Antwerp. New ships were ordered for the service but while they were being built Milburn used his existing ships to open up the route, the first voyage being undertaken by the Chollerton which sailed on 30th April 1883. The first new ship delivered to the company was the Port Jackson and with her the 'Port' nomenclature was initiated. This nomenclature was further endorsed when the second ship, the Port Phillip, joined the fleet in the October of 1883. When the Haverton sailed on 31st January 1884 the service became twice monthly and passengers were carried in the saloon and 'tween decks.

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